Without gas in orbit?  This US space company is here to help you

Without gas in orbit? This US space company is here to help you

Without gas in orbit?  This US space company is here to help you

US company Orbit Fab aims to produce the ‘gas stations’ in space, its CEO told AFP, hoping its fueling technology will make the growing satellite industry more sustainable and profitable.

Solar panels typically attached to satellites can generate power for their onboard systems like cameras and radios, but they can’t help orbiting objects adjust their positions, explains Daniel Faber, who co-founded the company in 2018.

“Everything is always drifting, and really fast. You’re not where you were supposed to be, so you have to keep adapting, which means you have to keep consuming propellant,” he tells AFP at the annual space industry rally in Colorado, Sources , Colorado.

The life of the satellites is therefore limited by the amount of fuel they can carry, at least for now.

“If you can refuel satellites in orbit,” Faber says, “you can avoid them having to be thrown away” – a model he describes as “crazy” due to their high cost of production and launch.

His company plans to send several large tanks into orbit, each containing up to several tons of fuel.

So smaller, more maneuverable ships will shuttle back and forth between tanks and satellites, like robotic pump attendants.

When asked what the risks are associated with operating such a system in orbit, Faber is frank: “Everything you could imagine.”

But he reassures that with many tests on the ground and in orbit, “it will be safe”.

Like cars, satellites hoping to receive additional propellant from Orbit Fab will need to have compatible refueling ports.

– Less weight, more profit –

Faber says between 200 and 250 satellites are already being designed to use his company’s system.

It’s a market with room for growth: some 24,500 satellites have been scheduled for launch between 2022 and 2031, according to consultancy firm Euroconsult.

Orbit Fab, which employs about 60 people and is looking to hire 25 more, has already launched one tank into orbit and plans to conduct the next fuel transfer tests.

In 2019, he demonstrated the feasibility of the system with water transfer tests at the International Space Station.

“Our first contract with the US government is to supply them with fuel in 2025” for Space Force satellites, says Faber.

He says they are planning to launch just a couple of fuel shuttles to geostationary orbit, where the satellites are mostly in “a single plane around the equator” at an altitude of about 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers).

Low Earth orbit satellites have very different trajectories and more fuel shuttles will be required.

Another added benefit of in-orbit refueling is the ability to unleash the key metric in rocket launches: weight.

They could therefore see the light of projects previously considered unfeasible because they were too heavy.

Above all, extending the life of satellites makes them more profitable in the long run.

– To the moon –

Beyond refueling, companies are also looking at other ways to service satellites, with Faber saying around 130 companies have recently appeared in the industry.

These include orbiting “tow trucks” that can approach troubled satellites and carry out repairs, such as helping to deploy a solar array or reorient an antenna.

Orbit Fab, which recently announced it raised $28.5 million, has a “symbiotic” relationship with these startups, Faber says.

Their cars will need refueling and in exchange they could “do the things we want, the services we want, maybe fix our spacecraft, if there’s a problem,” he explains.

They have already reached an agreement to refuel boats launched by Astroscale, a Japanese company that seeks to clear space debris, among other services.

Orbit Fab also aims to serve private space stations currently under development.

And it’s also eyeing a possible market on and around the Moon, focusing not on extracting materials, but turning them into propellant and delivering it to customers.

“At the moment, there’s nothing ‘on the Moon,'” says Faber.

“In five, 10, 20 years we expect it to change dramatically.”


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